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Environmental Issues and Human Health

Introduction

With the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic having affected all countries and millions of people around the globe, environmental threats to human health are now given the utmost attention by governments worldwide. It is internationally acknowledged that we are now facing an environmental crisis caused by rapid economic growth and industrialization, overpopulation, and the overuse of fuel and natural resources. Environmental changes resulting from human activities pose a global threat to human health and development, being a cause of many diseases, injuries, and deaths worldwide. The most important environmental concerns include climate change, air pollution, and waste management. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the impact of these environmental threats on human health and the strategies developed to address them.

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Background

While humans have always had an impact on their local environment, the rapid economic growth of the last several decades has resulted in increasingly harmful consequences, with environmental degradation being the most serious of them. Industrialization, urbanization, population and economic growth, intensification of agriculture, increase in transportation and energy use are the most important factors that contribute to environmental degradation (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). The main challenges that we now face include climate change, extinction of species, unprecedented pressure on terrestrial and marine ecosystems, pollution, and over-exploitation of natural resources.

There is a direct relationship between the state of the environment and human health, with environmental risks affecting mankind either directly by exposing people to harmful agents, or indirectly, by disrupting life-sustaining ecosystems. Although the exact contribution of environmental factors to disease and death rates is hard to determine, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that around 13 million deaths annually are related to preventable environmental causes (Encyclopedia of environmental health, 2019). The 6th Global Environment Outlook report, published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), identifies a range of the most serious environmental health challenges. They include air, water, and land pollution; heatwaves, flooding, and other weather extremes; toxic chemicals; pathogens; ultraviolet and other radiation; reduced biodiversity; melting of polar ice; and destruction of coral reefs (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). Environmental pressures are addressed by multiple organizations all over the world, united by the belief that immediate and consistent efforts are required to prevent the environmental health crisis.

Literature Review

Environmental issues began to be acknowledged and discussed only at the end of the 20th century, with the most extensive research conducted in the last two decades. The current literature on the problem of environmental health includes encyclopedias and collections of articles on the current environmental concerns, scholarly articles published in specialized journals, and reports put together by international organizations. Statistical data is provided by the WHO, UNEP, Greenpeace, and local governments.

For this research, two publications provide the most valuable sources of information: Encyclopedia of environmental health, and Global environment outlook 6, published by the UNEP. Encyclopedia of environmental health is a comprehensive collection of articles on all current environmental health threats. It provides a detailed overview of the whole scope of environmental problems, supported by factual data, and discusses the policies and strategies developed and implemented on local, national, and international levels. Global environment outlook 6 is the sixth UNEP’s report on pressing environmental issues put together by hundreds of scientists, peer reviewers, and collaborating institutions and partners. It outlines the current state of the environment, illustrates future environmental trends, and analyses the effectiveness of the implemented policies. This research also uses statistical data from the WHO’s website and the book Environmental health science: Recognition, evaluation, and control of chemical health hazards that discusses the issues of pollution and waste management.

Analysis

Global Warming and Climate Change

The terms “global warming” and “climate change” are used to denote the same problem connected to the enhancement of the Earth’s greenhouse effect as a result of increasing gas emissions from human activities. The most significant threats include the increase of average global temperature, changes in cloud cover and precipitation, melting of glaciers and ice caps, the rise of sea level, and extreme weather events (Encyclopedia of environmental health, 2019). The scope of climate change impacts on individual countries is different; however, as the changes progress, their effects become increasingly widespread.

Climate change affects human health and development in all countries worldwide, threatening all social and environmental determinants: clean air and water, sufficient food, and secure homes. Its main health impacts include water shortages, flooding, drought, shortages of food and crop production, the rise of sea level, and the spread of infectious diseases (World Health Organization, 2018). Many of the threats are hard to predict or model with a high level of accuracy. The most affected groups of population include children, elderly people, the population of poor countries, coastal regions, megapolises, mountains, and polar regions.

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Given the complexity of the challenge, the strategies of addressing global climate change have gone through various transformations over a period of close to two decades. The current international objectives include reducing gas emissions through the design of better transport systems, the development of new production technologies and cleaner energy systems, and the implementation of safer food and energy-use choices (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). In 2015, the WHO endorsed a new plan on climate change and health. It includes partnerships with governments and national health agencies, awareness-raising, research and development, and support of the public health responses to climate change (World Health Organization, 2018). The current international initiatives are focused on assisting less developed countries in building capacity to reduce health vulnerability to climate change, providing information on existing threats, and developing a global research agenda.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is considered by the WHO as the greatest environmental risk to health. The air we breathe contains emissions deriving from both natural and anthropomorphic sources, including motor vehicles, power plants, construction sites, fires, and industries. Nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day, and every year almost 7 million people die prematurely from diseases caused by air pollution, such as cancer, stroke, heart and lung diseases (Encyclopedia of environmental health, 2019). Air pollution particularly harms vulnerable population groups: elderly people, children, and people with existing respiratory problems. The problem is especially acute in less developed countries, where the volumes of emission from transport and industry are high and unregulated.

Air pollution is one of the major contributors to climate change, affecting the amount of sunlight that is reflected or absorbed by the atmosphere, temperature, and energy balance. Some pollutants, such as black carbon, lead to warming of temperatures by absorbing heat from the sun, while others, such as sulfates, bring about cooling effects by reflecting sunlight (Lippmann & Schlesinger, 2017). The problem of pollution was recognized in the 1970s, and several strategies and legislative initiatives have been developed to minimize its effects. The third session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, held in 2017, adopted the most current resolution on air quality that lists a range of measures to be taken to address the issue. They include taking action to decrease all forms of air pollution, establishing systems to monitor air quality and emissions, setting ambitious air quality standards, and integrating air pollution management into national development planning (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). The resolution also calls for strengthened cooperation to address the problem at the local, national, regional, and global levels.

Waste Management

With the rapid growth of the world’s population, the amount of waste we produce is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Poor waste management is a major threat that has an enormous impact on both environment and human health. Poorly collected or improperly disposed waste can contaminate surface and groundwater and cause air pollution from burning waste. Solid waste that is not managed properly can become a breeding ground for insects and vermin, contributing to the development and spread of air- and water-borne diseases (Lippmann & Schlesinger, 2017). The issue is particularly critical in low- and middle-income countries that have insufficient funding for adequate waste management and where waste disposal is still dominated by landfills, which represents a serious health hazard (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). Surveys conducted by UN-Habitat show that in areas where waste collection is not performed timely and properly, the cases of diarrhea are twice as high, and the cases of acute respiratory infections are six times higher than in areas where waste collection is frequent (Lippmann & Schlesinger, 2017). The other common issues include uncontrolled dumping, open burning, inadequate access to waste services, and increasing distribution and impact of marine litter.

The current waste disposal strategies are based on three main principles: waste reduction, recycling and materials recovery, and improving the efficiency of waste collection and disposal. Waste reduction and recycling initiatives seek to reduce the quantity of waste and the return of materials to the economy. Aerobic composting, anaerobic digestion, and incineration are waste disposal methods that allow to generate energy during waste disposal and reduce the volume of disposed waste (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). Basic waste disposal methods, such as landfills, should be engineered and operated properly to protect the environment and public health.

Conclusion

Environmental issues are a major source of damage to both human well-being and the health of the planet. The most significant threats include climate change, air pollution, and waste management. The risks are systematic and wide-ranging, with climate change threatening to destroy multiple ecosystems and natural habitats, and water and air pollution consistently deteriorating the quality of human lives and the natural environment. With some of the problems, such as waste management, mostly affecting less developed countries, the others, such as climate change, provide a global threat. Since the problems have been recognized at the end of the 20th century, multiple studies have been conducted and numerous strategies developed to tackle the crisis. The current initiatives are focused on the collaborative efforts of local communities, national governments, and international organizations. They include the introduction of new environmental legislation, research and development, raising public awareness, and minimizing the damage to the environment.

References

Encyclopedia of environmental health (2nd ed.). (2019). Elsevier.

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Lippmann, M., & Schlesinger, R. (2017). Environmental health science: Recognition, evaluation, and control of chemical health hazards. Oxford University Press.

United Nations Environment Programme. (2019). Global environment outlook 6. Cambridge University Press.

World Health Organization. (2018). Climate change and health. Web.

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